The present confrontation between the USA and North Korea is not expected to lead to an actual nuclear exchange, but does represent the first time since the Cold War that any country has threatened the US with nuclear attack.

There is poignancy in the fact that it is the USA under threat, for it is still the only country to have launched a nuclear attack on another, and that too on a country which at the time was in occupation of Korea. However, there is scepticism as well, for North Korea’s obtaining nuclear weapons was not through the more usual route of being part of the ‘nuclear club’, whose members are the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and the victors of World War II. It is Japan, which occupied Korea even before World War II.

With North Korea mentioned by US President George Bush as one of the ‘Axis of Evil’ back in 2006, it almost seems as if it was the only member with a nuclear programme. It turns out that Iraq did not have any nuclear weapons, and the IAEA says Iran does not either. However, North Korea does.

North Korea is something of a maverick. It was created because of World War II, it and South Korea being the result of a Japanese occupation followed by an attempted Communist takeover. Kim Il-sung was its first President, and made his repute in the 1950-53 Korean War, in which the USA played a leading role in fighting Chinese troops, who fought for North Korea. Kim had commanded a regiment of Korean exiles in the Soviet Army, and during his stay there, had children. One of them, Kim Jong-Il, succeeded him when he died in 1994. Kim Jong-Il himself died in December 2012, leaving his own son Kim Jong-un as his heir. This is the only example in the Communist world of what amounts to a dynastic succession. There has not even been one other example of a Communist leader being succeeded by a child even after an appropriate interval, let alone the North Korean example, where Kim Jong-Il, himself having succeeded his father, was succeeded by his own son, even though he was just a teenager.

One of the noticeable features of the North Korean regime has been the cult of personality. That has led to, among other things, the declaration of Kim Il-sung as President and General Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party in perpetuity, not to mention the embalming of his body Lenin-style, for public viewing.

Similarly, Kim Jong-Il was declared eternal Chairman the Military Commission after his death. Then there are the titles. Kim Il-sung himself was the ‘Great Leader’. Kim Jong-Il was the ‘Dear Leader’. Kim Jong-un is the ‘Brilliant Comrade’, though he has also been called the ‘Great Successor’. It is worth noting first that the prospect of a North Korean nuclear attack has been raised, for while the nuclear programme itself was started by Kim Il-Sung, the nuclear test was conducted in 2006, under Kim Jong-Il.

It cannot be ignored that North Korea has always been closely aligned to China. In fact, Kim Il-sung joined the Communist Party of China in 1931, though the Communist Party of Korea had been founded. China, only newly Communist, joined North Korea in its war against the USA in 1950-53, to the extent that it is seen as a Sino-US conflict more than anything else. North Korea joined China when it split the Communist camp

Interestingly, China too has seen a leadership transition, with Xi Jinping taking office as President on March 14. He not only represents the ‘fifth generation’ since the revolution, but is also the first son of a leading Communist official to become General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

However, his father, Xi Zhong Aun, while a senior party member at the time of the 1949 Revolution, died in 2002. He did not pass on even his position, which was pivotal but not leading, the way that Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-Il did. However, he was the first example of the hereditary principle in China since the revolution.

At the same time, the neighbours of North Korea seem to have been affected by this same hereditary principle. The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, who took office (for the second time) on December 26, is a third-generation politician on his father’s side, with both his father and grandfather having been members of the House of Representatives before him, while his maternal grandfather had been Prime Minister.

The President of South Korea, Park Geun-Hye, who took office on December 12, is not just the country’s first woman President, but is also the daughter of President Park Chung-hee, who had been President 1961-79, until his own assassination. He too had been a Korean War veteran, but obviously on the South Korean, pro-American side.

In that respect, US President Barack Obama is very much an outsider, his father not being a politician. However, it might be noted that the leads mentioned of China, Japan and South Korea, have all reached the top largely through their own ability. Though there is no denying that their famous progenitors’ names opened the right doors at the right times. It must be conceded, however, that none have been given the leadership of their country the way Kim Jong-un has.

One of the important features of the current crisis is thus about the extent to which it will allow the bolstering of the image of so many leaders. It should be remembered that these leaders (except Abe) may be new to their current jobs, but have been in government for long periods. It should also be kept in mind that the area, the Pacific Rim, is very important to the sole superpower.

Pakistan is not central to this crisis, but is dependent on South Korea, and liable to blame because of North Korea, whose nuclear programme it is assumed to be involved in because of Dr Abdul Qadir Khan. It should be remembered that North Korea is not merely trying to overawe a non-nuclear South Korea, but to take on the USA, which is multiple-ly more powerful. It seems as if the US nuclear umbrella, which it had extended to South Korea, where it has several divisions stationed to guarantee security and which serve as a nuclear tripwire, has failed.

A nuclear war, even if limited, will be disastrous to the global environment. Pakistan would be unable to escape its effects. This does not begin to include the economic effects that would be disastrous. Amid this general economic collapse, Pakistan would be unlikely to stand much chance

By bringing the world this close to nuclear war, an important function of the USA as the sole superpower has been highlighted. It has been shown that it must act to prevent environmental disasters. Its limitations have been exposed. In a multipolar world, this responsibility would be divided. It is, perhaps, more important for those enamoured of the USA in Pakistan to learn that its power has limits, and does not involve just endlessly strutting around, throwing its weight about, as it seems to believe.

Whatever the outcome of this crisis, it must b be seen as the beginning of the confrontation between the USA and China. Only on one side is a surrogate. However, one factor for stability is the fact that the Chinese economy cannot afford an attack on the USA. That alone might keep the peace. But where does that leave the USA? In a world where it depends on China to save it from attack? And where does that leave Pakistan?

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of TheNation.  Email: